(What I Got) Out of Africa

A Brief Peace Corps Experience Told in Short Breaths and Countless Letters

Friday, November 21, 2003


The matatus are on suddenly on strike. Life has come to a halting standstill. There are no cars on the road and no one can travel anywhere. I’m stranded in Chebole with errands to run. It’s eerily silent. I never realized how much noise the dilapidated Nissan vans made driving up and down the pot-holed roads.

Matatus are the most basic form of Kenyan transportation. They are wildly popular because of their usual reliability and sheer numbers on the road. Matatus come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but only one adjective—crowded. The old adage: A matatu is NEVER full. There is always (and I mean ALWAYS) room for one more. The most common of matatu is an old Nissan mini-van, normally meant to seat fourteen plus the driver. That’s three across in four rows and two seats in the front next to the driver. However, I’ve seen a matatu with well over 20 people crammed inside. Not counting children. The conductors will say, “Songa, mama, songa” meaning “scoot over, we have four more people to fit inside. You might have to stand up.” If you’re lucky, you’ll only be forced to seat four across. Now, of course, realize that children and small women don’t count as “people” so they have to stand, hovering between people’s legs and smushed against windows. Men always crowd on the outside of the Nissan, leaving the sliding door open and hanging out into the open, rushing air. The door can usually accommodate four to five men, hanging on tightly to the sliding door jam.

The other type of matatu, less popular on paved roads, is the “Lunch Box.” They usually run routes on the myriad red dirt roads that criss-cross the countryside throughout Kenya, linking the heartlands together. Lunch boxes are small, boxy pickup trucks with wooden bench seats lining the sides of the bed. The top often has metal bars arcing across with a green or blue tarp providing shade and protection from rain. Usually, there is a layer of reed mats laying across the metal bars as well because it allows men to sit atop the roof, maximizing the carrying capacity of people per lunch box (and more money). Safely, the top can carry six men, but usually there are more men crowded tightly, hanging on as the lunch box barrels down the dusty road, swerving to avoid potholes. On the bed, if you don’t get a seat on the side bench, you have to squat between in the center of the bed next to the spare tires lining the floor—not the most comfortable spot, but still the same fare price as a person who is sitting.

Matatus got the name from their originally cheap prices. Matatu is the adjective “three” in the MA in the noun class in Kiswahili (“ma-” the prefix plus tatu, meaning three). Money, or shilingi, falls into the MA noun class. So, when the matatu first made its debut on the Kenyan road, legend has that it cost only three Kenyan shillings to travel anywhere or “shilingi matatu”. Although now the price of a matatu ride has risen and varies on how far you want to go, it’s still the cheapest way to travel. For example, when I travel to Nairobi on business or to meet up with other PCVs, I take a matatu to Narok for 150/= and then switch to another matatu direct to Nairobi for another 200/=. For only 350/= (about the equivalent of $5), I travel from the bush to city. The total trip takes about four to five hours depending on how long I have to wait for a ride and how many people want to get on and off before my final destination. Sometimes, it seems like the matatu stops every few feet to let someone on or off. But all in all, the matatu ride is not a bad deal. Buses are the main alternative to matatus; however, buses are much slower and the ride to Nairobi can take upwards of 7 hours. Buses, like matatus, wait until they are full before they leave. Buses can take hours to fill their 60 seats, whereas a matatu usually fills its 15 seats in about 20 minutes.

When in town, matatus flock at the loading area, known as a stage. The bigger the town, the more chaotic the stage is. In Kisumu, the third largest city in Kenya located on the edge of Lake Victoria, the stage is an enormous sprawl of parking lot with matatus that travel across the entire country. The usually have large signs with their final destination and routes atop the vehicles to help the traveler. Many of the matatus are actually owned by “companies” which “oversee” pricing and maintenance. In larger cities like Kisumu, you buy your tickets from a booth or kiosk as opposed to paying the conductor on the vehicle. To make the scenario even more hectic, vendors are walking up and down the aisles of vehicles hawking their various plastic wares. There are small dukas edging the stage selling second-hand clothes and sundry items. Stages in larger towns and cities are a prime location for pickpockets, so it’s always a good idea to know where your valuables are. I’ve learned, too, that it’s best not linger at the stage too long.

Nairobi, the capital and largest city, boasts the most comprehensive matatu system. There are literally dozens of stages located throughout the city. Each route has a numbering system to help the traveler know what the matatu destination is. The stages service local routes traveling through the city and outer ring of suburbs, as well as destinations that are further away. For example, matatu number 31 travels from the Westlands (the Western edge of Nairobi) into the city center and back. Stages are tucked throughout alleys and in larges plazas, with absolutely no rhyme or reason to the layout. Finding the correct stage and then the correct matatu is always an adventure in Nairobi, however potentially dangerous it can be. Westerners are no unusual sight in Nairobi—every other car in the city is driven by a mzungu and has red diplomatic tags—but a mzungu searching for a stage and taking a matatu is a rarity indeed.

In smaller towns, like my closest town, Bomet, the stage is still frenzied but on a small level. Most small town and village matatus travel only to larger towns where you pick up a connecting matatu at the larger stage. It is rare to find a vehicle from a small village to Nairobi. Usually, drivers cruise the streets trying to get passengers to fill up their vehicle so that they can leave. Touts are hired by the owners of the matatus to yell out the destination of the matatu and to harass people to board the vehicle. He finds out the passengers destination and directs them to the correct matatu. Anytime I walk by the stage in Bomet, a barrage of touts asking, “Mama, where are you going, where to, Madame?” bombards me. The tout usually stays in town once the matatu leaves for its destination, but he gets a cut of money from the conductor for facilitating the process of filling the vehicle. There’s also the job of “conductor” on the matatu. The conductor (who can be the tout as well) collects the money and alerts the driver when a passenger wants to alight. The conductor also scoots people together and ensures that no one is taking up more than his fair share of space.

On a tarmac road outside a town, matatus barrel down at fairly regular intervals, coming and going in both directions. Catching a ride is simple; all you do is stick out a hand and wave from the wrist in a flapping motion with your fingers pointed down. My neighbor Erick likened the motion to one of removing money from a wallet—indicating that you will pay, unlike the palm-up flapping motion, which indicates you want a free ride from a private car. The coming matatu will invariably pull over and the conductor will jump out and motion for the mamas and men already seated to move over, encourage small children to stand two deep and indicate for you to jump on. As a white woman, I can use my mzungu status to procure a seat most times, although I try not to take too much advantage of it my whiteness. If the person getting up to give me his seat is a youngish man, I take it without hesitation. However, if it’s a woman or a mzee, I’ll stand or wait for the next matatu. I stand in solidarity with the mamas of Kenya, even if I’m American.

I have definite seating preferences. I will not sit in the back seat of a matatu. One of the first times I rode a matatu, I climbed in the backseat and before I knew it, there were eight people crowded back there—five seated and three standing children. For the first time in my life, I began to feel claustrophobic. I panicked, realizing that if something were to happen on the road, I’d never make it out of the backseat alive. I always try to either sit by a door or a window. Peace Corps lore has it that the safest place to sit is between two large mamas in the second or third row. The “death seat” is in the front next to the driver—presumably because going through the windshield in a collision is a high probability. However, that is my favorite seat, mainly because there’s more leg room. I’ll take my chance on a collision.

Sitting on a Nissan is an interesting experience and one that, most of the time, I really enjoy. Sure it’s crowded and often hot with numerous bodies, but nowhere else do I feel more human. There’s something to be said for being pressed up against people you don’t know, your skin touching their skin, sitting partly on top of another, or holding someone else’s baby. Even though it sometimes feels like a sea of humanity, the experience makes me feel intensely connected to people and aware of others like I’ve never been before. Being foreign on a matatu is a unique experience, too, simply because people touch me constantly. Mamas will reach across the seat and stroke my hair wanting to feel the silkiness; children will touch my arms wondering if my skin is textured differently. Sometimes, I get annoyed and want to turn around and shout, “Hello, I can feel that!” but generally, the touch of strangers doesn’t bother me. Being here is so isolating at times and I crave the ease of human touch, even from a stranger.

Despite the feeling of belonging I have on a matatu, I can feel very disconnected because of the language barrier. Almost no one uses Kiswahili or English on a matatu unless you’re in Nairobi—it’s always the local language of the area. Since my Kipsigis is very limited, I understand only a fraction of the babble of conversation that flows around me. I know when jokes are made because of the sudden laughter and I can tell when a mama argues about the price of her fare because the anger edges in her voice. It can be difficult, too, to make sure I’m not being cheated by the conductor, who most times tries to get me to pay more than I should. Always, I try to avoid asking the price of the fare. For shorter routes, say from my village to the town, I know the standard fare (always 30/=). However, for trips to new towns or further destinations, figuring out the cost can be tricky. If you ask the conductor, there’s a high probability that he’s adding an additional 20-50/= to the standard fare. And it’s hard to argue it down. The rule of thumb among PCVs is to either ask a mama (women seem to rarely cheat foreigners on matatus) or try to figure out what others are paying by intent observation. Normally, I just give the amount I feel is fair. If I’ve underpaid, the conductor will say, “Add 5/= shillings, Mama” or whatever the additional amount I owe is—and he’s usually telling the truth. If I’ve overestimated the cost and paid too much, he’ll just keep his mouth shut and pocket the extra. Paying the correct amount of shilengi can be frustrating because Kenyans associate whiteness with money. In fact, the Kipsigis word “chumindet” means both “white person” and “rich person.”

My center (too small to be dubbed a village) is nestled directly on the tarmac road between the two towns of Bomet and Kaplong. There are about five to six privately-owned matatus that run the thirty kilometers between the towns. I’ve gotten to know the drivers and conductors pretty well. I know who to avoid because he cheats me and which ones are my friends. Often, when I walk up to the stage, I’m greeted with shouts of “Chepkemoi, today Chebole?” The owners and the men that work the matatus are intensely proud of their vans. Every Sunday, as I go for my daily walk, I see the men washing their matatus in the Sise River that runs nearby. They drive the matatu right down to the water’s edge to clean both the outside and the inside of the dried brown Kenyan mud that seems to coat everything during the rainy season. The matatus in my area are also given names, some of which never fail to make me laugh. My favorite is the “Nameless Princess,” but there are several other priceless names, such as Baby Face, Yugo, Sierra Leon, and Silent Night. There’s even one named after one of my favorite Spanish football teams—Real Madrid. The names are stuck on the rear windshield and often are made out of sparkly letters.

The insides of the Nissan matatus are also decorated in what I can only describe as a ghetto-pimp style. The dashboards are covered in paisley velour and usually have gold or red fringe hanging off. There’s always a radio of some kind, tuned to the local Kipsigis station, screeching music out of a tinny speaker normally located right by my left ear. In every matatu, there are stickers all over the inside proclaiming the love Jesus and God, the important of wisdom versus knowledge, and the Kenyan flag.


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